As the United States fights COVID-19, misinformation about the flu vaccine spreads.
Health authorities are pressuring Americans to get a flu vaccine to avoid an overflow during the winter of hospitals, already busy fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
But misinformation on social media undermines that effort.
A false claim that circulates on Facebook and Instagram indicates that the flu vaccine increases the probability of contracting COVID-19 by 36%.
It is also falsely claimed on Instagram that Sanofi’s Fluzone vaccine is 2.4 times more lethal than COVID-19.
A nationwide study by the University of Michigan found that one in three parents planned not to inoculate their children against the flu this year, claiming those claims or that the vaccine is not effective, also a falsehood.
“Primary healthcare providers have a very important role to play in this flu season,” said Sarah Clark of the Michigan Children’s Health Research and Evaluation Medical Center, who led the study.
“They need to send parents a clear and strong message about the importance of the flu vaccine.”
But with daily cases of covid-19 on the rise, with record levels in several states, false information stands as a barrier for people to go to get vaccinated.
Jeanine Guidry, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies health messages on social media, said “there is a lot of misinformation related to covid and I really think it extends” to the flu.
Amelia Jamison, a disinformation researcher and doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, agrees. “The flu is trapped in some of the narratives that we see about the coronavirus,” he said.
– Low vaccination in 2020 –
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 49.2% of the population was vaccinated against the flu in the 2018-2019 season.
This season, in addition to misinformation, measures to prevent the spread of convid-19 resulted in fewer face-to-face consultations with the doctor, during which many patients are often inoculated. And there was no vaccination in companies, churches or schools either.
High unemployment as a result of the pandemic measures also left millions of Americans without health insurance, meaning states will have to bear the cost of the vaccine for more patients.
Although the effectiveness of the flu vaccine depends on whether the strain that circulates is the same as the one in the injection, the CDC says it prevents millions of sick people each year.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends vaccinating all children older than six months.
Expert Danuta Skowronski, from the Center for Disease Control of British Columbia, Canada, stated that “we did not find any link in children or adults who have been inoculated against the flu with the risk of coronavirus.”
– The response of the networks –
Although social media is harboring misinformation, it also takes steps to spread a trusted guide to vaccines.
This week, Facebook announced that it will begin directing US users to information about where they can get the flu shot and vowed to reject ads that discourage inoculation.
Before the pandemic, Twitter and Pinterest adopted policies to redirect searches for certain vaccine-related keywords to public health organizations.
But Adam Dunn, director of Biomedical Informatics and Digital Health at the University of Sydney, believes that more can be done.
Methods developed to encourage user engagement on social media “could be used more judiciously to guide people to credible, evidence-based information,” he said.
He also advocated for the creation of more “vaccine advocacy communities that are more welcoming, honest and aligned with a diversity of worldviews.”
Libby Richards, an associate professor at the Purdue School of Nursing, noted that the “flu vaccine is more important than ever this year” and cautioned that severe cases of covid-19 and the flu require the same equipment to save lives.
“Receiving the flu vaccine will not only provide personal health protection, it will also help reduce the burden of respiratory diseases in our already overburdened healthcare system,” he said.
He also urged that people take time to verify the information that comes to them. “There are many myths about the flu vaccine that can clearly be debunked with minimal reading on the subject.”